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Riding the Tiger > Category: Presidents and the Presidency

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

1857: The Inaugural Before the Tempest

Photograph of James Buchanan's 1857 presidential inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. First ever such photograph

Photograph of James Buchanan’s 1857 presidential inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. First ever such photograph. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

“To the Patriot Buchanan / The tribute we owe, / Til the people proclaim it again to bestow, / And the fourth day of March be again made to yield, / A harvest of Glory in Liberty’s field.”

-Col. W. Emmonn, an Ode composed in honor of James Buchanan’s inauguration

History has not been kind to James Buchanan. Historians in the business of ranking presidents generally place him near the infamous bottom of the list - beyond the relative harmlessness of being completely unknown (Millard Fillmore) and sometimes even the disgrace of scandal (Warren G. Harding). Arguably, he his lowly rank is, in part, due to his proximity to the near-universally accepted “best” president, Abraham Lincoln. The contrast does not serve Buchanan’s legacy well. To summarize his historical portrait: he is the president who believed that the South had no right to secede from the Union, and that the president had no right to stop them. Not surprisingly, his inaugural address gets very little attention from presidential scholars. While there is no use in arguing for renewed attention to Buchanan, it is worth noting that the inaugural addresses of “failed” presidents are at least as interesting as those of successful ones.

At the time, Buchanan’s inaugural did not enjoy a warm reception. The front page of the New York Times featured the speech the next day, together with an article entitled “Narrow Escape of the President Elect from a Violent Death,” which included unflattering details of Buchanan suffering from diarrhea as a side effect of accidental arsenic poisoning. Even more recent, evenhanded, considerations of Buchanan and his inaugural add only slight modifications to his “reviled” legacy. “James Buchanan,” writes Michael Carrafiello of Miami University, “was tragically ill equipped to become the nation’s chief executive at a time of burgeoning crises.”

The speech lives up to expectations, though it can be read two ways. It can be read as the best attempt of an incoming president to serve as an arbiter in a time of growing sectional conflict, or it can be read as a tragic miscalculation of an inept president-elect.

Highlight from the Recasting Presidential History Conference: Darren Dochuk on Religious Ecologies

Darren Dochuck, “There Will Be Oil: Presidential Politics, Wildcat Religion, and the Culture Wars of Pipeline Politics.”

Darren Dochuk’s paper and presentation at the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October is another terrific example of cutting edge work that points to the rich opportunities for conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. Dochuk, an Associate Professor in the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, asserts that there are relatively few historians who have foregrounded religion in their studies of the presidency and that those who have, have generally done so in ways that resonate with the old presidential synthesis of history that deemed the supreme commander the supreme force in American politics. There is a familiar narrative among historians who write of faith and presidency in which presidents, “humbled by sin, budding politician encounters God, dedicates life to civil service, appeals to his people with piety, then as the anointed governs with a firm imposition of will.” Faith in this popular storyline is an isolated impulse or a catalogued theology of the president that doesn’t track to the day-to-day muddles of real politics. The measurement of belief and action is usually done within the context of culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage. According to Dochuk, what remains is a rather superficial literature “in which priestly presidents still act as free-floating agents who dictate, not simply embody, the spirit of their age.”

Dochuk invites us to instead consider a new, more exciting dimension in our rendering of presidential history by examining how presidents have grappled with the sacred environments they have inherited. We need to look beyond spiritual biographies and “examine the religious ecologies that shape the politics of a place, and define the presidents and presidencies that emerge from them.” Recent innovations, for example, have shown how religious interests, especially Protestant ones, have influenced presidential politics and policy. Scholarly progress can be made by moving away from conventional renderings of the priestly president towards more textured political histories that embed presidencies and presidents in their deepest social contexts. Dochuk makes that case that a new generation of scholars should pay attention to the “moral geographies that presidencies and presidents inhabit and engage,” and in so doing, “we will also be compensated with histories that make it harder to differentiate between the social and political, the political and religious.”

Highlight from the Recasting Presidential History Conference: Grace Elizabeth Hale

As we noted in a post last week, RTT is highlighting papers and presentations from the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October that point to the rich opportunities for conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. One such presentation worth highlighting is that delivered by Grace Elizabeth Hale, a professor of History and American Studies at the University of Virginia. Her presentation, “Outsider in Chief: Presidents and the Politics of Authenticity and Emotion,” traces the cultural development of the President’s outsider persona. Observers of contemporary American politics need only look at each new batch of Republican primary candidates to witness the irony of individuals attempting to become the foremost political insider--while all simultaneously claiming to be outside the fray. Hale traces this proclivity to the desire to appear “real” before the electorate, while showing how presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have touted their own outsider credentials. Her presentation invites us to consider the cultural roots of their presidential authenticity (or lack thereof).

1841: The Irony Inaugural

Lithograph of William Henry Harrison

Lithograph of William Henry Harrison. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

The Inaugural Address of William “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison is possibly the most popular and least examined speech of its kind. The story of the address is one of the best (and most morbid) jokes in presidential history: an elderly president, in an attempt to display his youthful stamina, gives an inaugural speech nearly twice as long as any other, catches pneumonia during the address and subsequently dies. Setting aside the fact that it was probably not much of a side-splitter at the time, this post is my attempt to unearth some of the lost substance of Harrison’s speech.

The most obvious attribute of Harrison’s Inaugural is its length. The speech is well over 8,000 words – double that of any other. Harrison’s predecessor, Martin Van Buren, gave a speech of 3,800 words. Andrew Jackson, in his second inaugural address, managed only 1,100 words. Contemporary presidents typically give speeches in the 2,000-3,000-word range. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, arguably the most examined in history, was only 700 words. So, what message did Old Tippecanoe need 8,000 words to convey?

Harrison took the opportunity to lay out a framework for a more limited presidency – one that scaled back the “monarchical” tendencies of Jacksonian Democracy.

Recasting Presidential History

In October, the Miller Center hosted a two-day conference on “Recasting Presidential History.”  The conference sought to jump start a new generation of scholarship about the presidency, capitalizing on key insights of leading scholars, many of whom have not concentrated on the presidency but rather conducted path-breaking work in subdisciplines ranging from cultural to social history. The conference also sought to extend interest in the presidency from presidential historians and senior scholars to a to a broader range of historians just embarking on their careers.

Over the next couple weeks, RTT will highlight conference papers and presentations that point to the rich opportunities for a conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. As Miller Center National Fellowship Program Chair and UVa History Professor Brian Balogh notes in this video interview with the History News Network, we hope a new generation of scholars will be inspired to pursue of variety of analytical approaches to studying the American presidency and to draw on the presidency to inform the questions they will address in their dissertation. Watch all of the conference presentations online here.

Presidents and the Institutionalization of Thanksgiving

1939 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1939 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo Courtesy of the FDR Library, PD.

How have Presidents institutionalized Thanksgiving? There are three critical moments in the development of Thanksgiving as a formalized, national holiday. Not surprisingly, they center around three of the most studied presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

At the request of Congress, Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Day proclamation on October 3rd, 1789:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

His statement is indicative of the both the character and structure of the holiday in early American history. Thanksgiving was--as it is today--a day of thanks; but specifically, it was an expression of gratitude toward “that great and glorious Being.” This first presidential thanksgiving took place on the last Thursday in November--a precedent that the next fourteen presidents would only loosely follow.

Nearly 75 years later, Lincoln, at the urging of a newspaper editor Sarah Josepha Hale, would issue another Thanksgiving Proclamation, which nationalized the holiday. The statement, which was written by Secretary of State William Seward, called upon Americans in the midst of civil war to remember the gifts they daily received:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Between 1789 and 1863, states issued their own thanksgiving proclamations, and dates of the holiday varied. After Lincoln, Thanksgiving became an annual presidential responsibility, which charged future presidents to proclaim the last Thursday of November a holiday.

That precedent held for another 75 years, until FDR faced a crisis of calendar in 1939. In that year, there were five, not four, Thursdays in November--which, if Roosevelt had followed tradition, would have shortened the Christmas shopping season (retailers considered Christmas advertising prior to Thanksgiving improper). Fred Lazarus Jr. of Federated Department Stores successfully lobbied Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in years in which November had five Thursdays. The executive move angered a number of states enough that in some places two Thanksgivings were celebrated. In 1941, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed into law a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday in November “a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as” Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July.

So, with the tip of the presidential signing pen, Thanksgiving Day has gone from an informal religious celebration, to a national holiday that marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

Inaugural History Feature of the Week: JFK

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT will feature an inaugural speech by a previous president from the Miller Center’s archives.

This week marks the 49th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. With this anniversary in mind, RTT highlights JFK’s inaugural address as well as some of our resources on his assassination.

In preparing for his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, JFK sought to capitalize on the moment to both inspire the country as well as to discuss the challenges confronting the country in the Cold War. He wanted the speech to be both concise and devoid of partisan rhetoric. JFK tapped his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, to study previous inaugural speeches, especially Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in order to help the president craft a successful speech. JFK told Sorenson, “I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag,” and he also enlisted suggestions from friends and advisors.

A few years ago, Sorenson surmised that the speech “was not Kennedy's best” and “may not even have been Kennedy's most important speech historically, in terms of its impact on our planet.” However, it was “world-changing.” In Kennedy, Sorenson wrote that JFK thought that earlier drafts of the speech focused too heavily on domestic issues and the following lines were cut from the speech:

We must begin by facing the fact that history’s most abundant economy has slackened its growth to a virtual halt. That the world’s most productive farmers have only suffered for their success. . . . That too many of our cities are sinking into squalor.

One of the most significant cuts from earlier versions of the speech was a reference to civil rights:

Our nation’s most precious resource, our youth, are developed according to their race or funds, instead of their own capability.

The reason for the omission of important domestic issues was JFK’s belief that they would inherently raise partisan divisions. Instead, JFK sought to demonstrate his grasp of global issues and the passing of the torch of leadership to a new generation. Thus, the final version of the speech stressed concern for global poverty and opposition to dictatorships. It also stressed America’s role as a champion of liberty throughout the world:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

JFK’s Inaugural Address also emphasized America’s preference for negotiations and cooperation in the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. While attempting to downplay tensions on the one hand, JFK also sought to convey American resolve.

Inaugural History Feature of the Week: Abraham Lincoln

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, given on 4 March 1865 on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol.

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, given on 4 March 1865 on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT will feature an inaugural speech by a previous president from the Miller Center’s archives.

November 19th will mark the 149th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it, as well as Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865, are acknowledged to be among the great orations in American history. Given the upcoming anniversary, this week RTT highlights the importance of both of these speeches.

Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 was delivered just over a month before his assassination and as the end of the Civil War was rapidly approaching. The address was brief, but profound.  Abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the speech a “sacred effort” and praised it  for sounding "more like a sermon than like a state paper." Lincoln used the address to “look with high hope to the future” and to unite the country by propounding a providential interpretation of the cause, duration and consequences of the war for both sides. While the President rejected the triumphalism of radical Republicans, he also denounced slavery in concrete terms:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Lincoln concluded the address with a defense for a pragmatic approach to Reconstruction and reconciliation: 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the fight as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The Consultant President

Mitt Romney, October 7, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Mitt Romney speaking at the Values Voter Summit (Omni Shoreham Hotel) in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC-SA.

Tony Lucadamo, Senior Editor at the Virginia Policy Review, contributes today's guest post, which explores whether Mitt Romney represents a new generation of consultancy leaders.

If you have not already, I encourage you to watch a recent PBS Frontline special on the Presidents entitled, “The Choice 2012.” The show’s season premiere takes an in-depth look at the backgrounds of both Presidential nominees. The most interesting point was this. Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker remarked:

It’s a little bit like a consulting engagement. You go in. You figure out what the problems are. You fix things. You make things more organized. Then you go on to the next challenge.

Romney’s senior advisors essentially concur in later statements. Their narrative runs like a private equity assignment. He presented a product – the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Governor -- which he thought would meet demand. He then did what he could given a Democratic-controlled State legislature. In particular, he picked the issue of healthcare and made it the main issue of his four years in office.

Yet, in many ways, this alternate method is nothing new. Certainly, populism has been around for a long time. Governor Romney's Profile is perhaps an evolution of the executive-centered, efficiency-minded values that took root in the Progressive Era combined with a populism gleaned through the lens of modern business. The service sector constitutes an increasing proportion of U.S. GDP with each passing year. In that case, it should come as no surprise that this new generation of leaders is upon us. Men and women who have built their careers in private equity and consulting may increasingly seek to transfer their skills into politics. There is equal fodder for both pessimists and optimists in that case.

Continue reading this post at the Virginia Policy Review.

 

Responder-in-Chief: Presidential Leadership and Disaster Politics

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses members of the press while deplaning in New Orleans.

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses members of the press while deplaning in New Orleans to survey damage done by Hurricane Betsy. September 10, 1965. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. Courtesy LBJ Library, PD.

Hurricane Sandy is threatening millions on the East Coast and dominating the headlines and airwaves. With just eight days until the election, Sandy is also impacting the presidential campaign. Both presidential campaigns have canceled planned stops and are urging people in affected states to take precautions. Some may find the change in tone, even if forced by disaster, a relief. Rather than bashing each other non-stop, the candidates are more focused on demonstrating leadership in the face of a disaster, showing concern and empathizing with those in harm’s way. Hurricane Sandy is no doubt a test of leadership for both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. However, as the head of government, the President will be particularly challenged with the responsibility for how the government responds. However, the President has not always held the role of “Responder-in-Chief.”

The greater transformation of the public’s expectation for presidential response to disasters is rooted more broadly in the development of the permanent campaign. Amidst the height of the presidential campaign in 1972, Richard Nixon was criticized for his response to Hurricane Agnes that affected the Atlantic states, especially Pennsylvania, New York and Northern Virginia. Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Milton Shapp, Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern and others seized on the opportunity to sharply criticize Nixon for what they called the government’s incompetent response. Nixon moved quickly to mitigate the damage, but was only able to do so when he took the reins and choreographed the government’s response from the White House. If not for the campaign season and the politicization of the government’s response, we may not have seen a broader expansion of the President’s role of “Responder-in-Chief.”